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Mapping STEM into the Curriculum

By: Jo Anne Vasquez, Ph.D.

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), STEM Education, and everywhere you turn, STEMmania has set in. Most educators are somewhat familiar with the acronym, but many have questions: Why STEM Education? Why now? Is it for all students or just those few who are math and science oriented? How can it help improve my teaching? I have too much already on my plate; is this just one more add-on to my curriculum?

Start Small and Build Up Implementation

Implementing a STEM program, like any new approach, is all about changing the system. First, you have to get everybody on the same page about the operational definition of STEM and what STEM teaching and learning should look like in their school. Then give teachers some opportunities for success. Bring STEM lessons for them to try. Then have teachers work as a team to see where those natural connections in their standards are and where they might be creative about designing lessons. Early adopters can co-teach with others to build support for and understanding of the new STEM program.

1. Define STEM and what STEM teaching and learning should look like in your school.
2. Empower teachers for success by letting them work as a team.

Most people want to go right to problem-based or project-based learning, which we hear most often associated with STEM. However, it usually helps to start at a lower level of integration and build up—in fact, lower levels of integration remain valid methods of integrating STEM even when project- or problem-based learning has been implemented across the school.

Multidisciplinary Vs. Interdisciplinary Approach

A multidisciplinary approach uses a theme that appears in each STEM and core course during the same time period to draw connections among subjects. An interdisciplinary approach achieves a higher level of integration and can take place across subjects or within a single lesson.

For example, the concept focus with an interdisciplinary approach might be “cause and effect.” In a fully integrated STEM lesson, all disciplines come together and you do not see any separation of skills and knowledge within the disciplines. The students don’t think to themselves, “is this science or math?”

Empower Teachers to Adapt

One implementation barrier can be teachers’ assumptions about what it takes to teach engineering or interdisciplinary STEM lessons. Teachers might hear the word engineering and they think it has to be done by somebody from outside. However engineering design practices enable connections across subjects. In engineering we define a problem, while in science we ask a question. When students are defining a problem, working out a solution, and building something, they are implementing engineering design. The application of these concepts into a lesson can integrate engineering without the need for outside expertise.

Some teachers may already teach this way without realizing it. Students are building things in most classrooms. The key is to help teachers develop what they already do into something that supports a STEM teaching and learning approach.

STEM Experiences Provide Answers to “Why Do I Need to Know This?”

It is not always necessary to buy a STEM curriculum. My experience shows that if schools use what they already do and ratchet that up with natural connections between their own standards and integrating 21st century skills, students really start to blossom through applied learning and understand why they are learning. STEM teaching and learning is all about application. The students cannot apply what they don’t know! STEM experiences provide the “Why do I need to know this?” answers for students.

Go slow, have a strategic plan, make sure teachers have input into that plan, and then find someone knowledgeable to help implement, even if it is someone creative in the school who has already started to make those natural connections. I think we have made STEM difficult for teachers to understand, but it does not have to be. The idea of integrated curriculum is not new, but for a while curriculum went back to being a siloed approach. The pendulum has now turned because teachers are starting to become aware of those natural connections and ways to apply what the students are learning into other core areas.

Jo Anne Vasquez, Ph.D., is a STEM Education author and professional development provider. She is the past president of the National Science Teachers Association, the National Science Education Leadership Association and a former member of the National Science Board, the governing Board of the National Science Foundation. Vasquez provides custom expertise to help schools and districts implement fully integrated STEM programs.

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